Editor's Note: This review originally ran on Paramus Patch in November 2010.
The Fireplace at the juncture of Route 17 and Ridgewood Avenue in Paramus has been a pit stop for shoppers, area workers and travelers for more than half a century.
The late Frank Reilly, a Navy vet turned FBI agent, opened a hot dog and hamburger stand in 1956, hiring other agents and their sons to help him. His son Patrick, who runs The Fireplace now, said Reilly soon bought out homeowners adjacent to his fledgling restaurant and built additions and the ample parking lot that surrounds The Fireplace today.
"Until the 1970s, only men worked here," Patrick recalled. "And the part-time kids had to be from Paramus. Their fathers were thrilled when they complained about the hard work. It meant they were learning the importance of hard work."
It is clear Patrick's father ran a tight ship. And if you grew up in Bergen County, and have never been to The Fireplace, you are probably in the minority.
Today, with its wood-paneled interior and wagon-wheel chandeliers, The Fireplace still evokes the 1950s. The art work reflects Frank Reilly's interest in history. A model train was added to the décor about 20 years ago and children (and sometimes adults) can push a button and blow its whistle. Patrick said the trains have to be replaced every couple of months because they wear out from constant use.
It's so well-known in the area that bus drivers call out "The Fireplace" as a stop on Route 17 instead of Ridgewood Avenue.
And in these recession-weary days, business is really brisk. "We're positioned in a nice place," Patrick said. "Business has actually increased. People still want a night out, but they don't want to break the budget. "
There are homemade soups and three or four salads on the menu, but at dinner time on a recent Monday night, it was clearly a place for people who wanted a quick dinner –usually a sandwich and fries-- before they went on about their business.
Men in three-piece suits lined up with families and single diners in jeans and polo shirts for a spot at the long wooden counter where you place your order and await your food.
Wooden tables designed for parties of one, two, three, six and eight or more awaited diners in two separate downstairs dining areas and an upstairs area, considerably smaller, serving only pizza and calzone.
When I announced I was about to review The Fireplace, my entire immediate family –four adults and three children under six—asked to join me. My daughter waxed nostalgically about her visits as a teenager. My granddaughter wanted a hamburger.
It is, of course, a bring your own bottle place, but as far as I could tell, we were the only people with a bottle of wine, which had to be poured into plastic Coca-Cola cups, but whatever.
Background music ranged through 50s and 60s hits but couldn't really drown out the clatter of trays dropping on tables, children being admonished and orders being called.
The chicken sandwich, bratwurst, hamburgers, fries and onion rings were ready in record time. The pizza was another story.
I went up the stairs to the floor where pizza is served and asked for a pizza margherita, figuring that was the simplest thing to make and almost foolproof. "I don't know how to make that," the young man behind the counter replied. After some back and forth we determined that he could make what The Fireplace calls a "plain pie." That's mozzarella and tomato sauce. Counting the negotiations, the pizza took about a half an hour so most of the rest of the meal was pretty well over by the time it arrived.
Note for the future: If someone in the party wants pizza, order it first, then wait 10 minutes and order everything else. "We try to have orders out in two to three minutes," Patrick said, adding at my prompting, "Except for the pizza."
All the food except the onion rings was perfectly good if not really great. The onion rings were great.
If you are a pizza connoisseur, you'll probably skip the pies here. Ours wasn't really particularly good American or good Neapolitan, but it was acceptable and my grandson, who had his heart set on it, was happy. And some of the rest of us helped him eat it.
"We don't sell a lot of pizza," Patrick said in a later interview, "but we want to have the option on the menu. It's why we also have veggie burger for people who don't want meat. There's something for everyone here."
The Fireplace serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The busiest hour, Patrick said, is between 12 and 1 p.m. Many of the restaurant's 40 employees have been there since Patrick's father ran the business, including a manager with 40 years of service.
The experienced wait staff is what enables the restaurant to serve a bus load of 100 people in a relatively short amount of time. That's also when the large parking lot comes in handy. "My dad always said you have to have parking."
Next July 4, The Fireplace will be 55 years old and Patrick is planning to celebrate the same way the restaurant celebrated the 50th anniversary –by rolling back prices to 1956. That's when you could get a hamburger, fries and a coke for less than a dollar.
At the 50th celebration, the restaurant served 3,000 people in five hours.